How three unheralded QBs landed on Super Bowl caliber teams

Updated: January 20, 2018
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We’ve come to expect Tom Brady to be in the thick of things when it pertains to a potential Super Bowl berth. Since he’s been at the helm, the New England Patriots have participated in the big game seven times — winning five of them. Brady has started in an NFL record 35 postseason games and has a 26-9 record. But with championship week approaching, what we didn’t realize is there would be three quarterbacks still in contention that have a combined five games of playoff experience.

They would be Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles. The three of them are benefiting from stout defenses and gameplans that cater to their skill sets. But each of them have taken different routes to reach this point.

Keenum entered this season as a backup to Sam Bradford, who went down with a knee injury early in the season. That opened the door for Keenum to step in and take full command of the offense. He lost two of his first three starts, and Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer went back to Bradford once he was healthy enough to play. But in doing so, Bradford reaggravated the knee injury in a Monday night victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 5.

Keenum reentered the lineup and instantly raised his level of play. He finished the regular season with an 11-3 record, including 10-1 once he took over for Bradford the second time around. The Vikings had the NFL’s top overall defense during the regular season in yards allowed, which didn’t put too much pressure on Keenum to produce. But he turned out to be more than just a game manager.

He was second in the NFL, to Drew Brees, in completion percentage (67.6) and seventh in the league in passer rating (98.3). The fifth-year signal-caller also threw 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and helped wide receiver Adam Thielen earn his first Pro Bowl nod. The 29-year-old Keenum has Minnesota just one win shy of becoming the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl on its home field.

It was just last season when Keenum was benched for then-rookie quarterback Jared Goff nine games into the schedule. The Rams were 4-5 at the time, but Jeff Fisher was eager to see what his No. 1 draft pick could do.

Well, Goff went winless (0-7) down the stretch and caused critics to question whether he was worthy of being selected so high. The blame may very well fall on Fisher, which is why he was let go after that season, but who would’ve thought Keenum would bounce back and have this type of year? And even to this day, following an improbable victory over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, Keenum continues to get doubted by the media, fans and opposing teams. But he just keeps proving them wrong, one throw at a time.

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Foles, another quarterback formerly coached by Fisher, has been thrust into the role as the Philadelphia Eagles‘ starter due to a late-season injury to Carson Wentz, who was playing at an MVP level. It’s Foles’ second chance to lead the Eagles in the postseason, as he was also behind center in 2013, the last time Philadelphia was in the playoffs. Foles finished that year by throwing 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions. At the time, that was the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history, until Brady outdid that mark in 2016 with a 28-touchdown, two-interception season.

Things went downhill for Foles following that incredible 2013 campaign. He started just eight games for the Eagles in 2014, after breaking his collarbone, and was eventually dealt to the Rams. That stint wasn’t successful, to say the least, as he threw just seven touchdowns and 10 picks in 11 games as the starter for St. Louis. The Kansas City Chiefs then signed him in 2016 to a one-year deal to backup Alex Smith. He appeared in only three games and the Chiefs declined to pick up his option, which led to his return to Philadelphia.

Due to the injury to Wentz, Eagles fans were pessimistic entering the postseason, even as the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But Foles found a comfort zone against the Atlanta Falcons last week and played well enough to deliver a victory in front of Lincoln Financial Field. He completed 76.7 percent of his passes for 246 yards and had zero turnovers. The jury is out on whether he can bring a Super Bowl to the city of Philadelphia, but he at least gave his team life for an additional week. The Vikings and their well-rounded defense will provide a difficult task on Sunday, but the Eagles have a pretty stingy defense on their side as well, presenting a challenge for both quarterbacks in the NFC Championship.

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As for the Jacksonville Jaguars, you can give the majority of the credit to their defense for getting them this far. They’ve been excellent at all levels, especially in the secondary. The cornerback tandem of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye can give opposing quarterbacks nightmares. They make up two of the top-10 corners in the NFL — in my opinion — and are both headed to the Pro Bowl. And while they give receivers hell on the outside, Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and “Sacksonville” are getting after the passer. A recipe for success.

But Bortles has been serviceable, and has even shown during these playoffs that he can make off-schedule plays when things break down. He rushed for 88 yards in the wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills and made a few key throws when Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers were storming back after falling behind 28-7 last weekend. Bortles hasn’t turned the ball over in two games this postseason and has been the ultimate game manager. He has a bruising running back to hand the ball to in Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 109 yards and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh. And he has learned that every possession doesn’t necessarily have to end in points when you have such a talented group on the defensive side. Even though Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes and put up 42 points, the Steelers still suffered a loss. So the Jaguars showed they can win a shootout (vs. Pittsburgh), or a tightly-contested, defensive affair (vs. Buffalo).

The Jaguars drafted Bortles third overall in 2014 and they’ve stuck it out with him during challenging times. He hasn’t always been inspiring to watch over the four years he’s been in Jacksonville, and there have been several rumors that he may not be the team’s starter next season — despite the playoff success. Maybe a Super Bowl ring would alter that thinking a bit.

But come Sunday, none of these quarterbacks’ past will be relevant. All that’ll matter is the 60 minutes in which their respective teams take the field to fight for a chance to play on the sport’s biggest stage. Brady, who is currently nursing a hand injury and had to get four stitches this week, is the favorite to come away with a sixth championship. That would cement his place — if it hasn’t already been cemented — as the greatest quarterback the NFL has ever witnessed. He’s what many players at his position across the league aspire to be. He’s a walking legend.

Bortles gets the first crack of these three quarterbacks to take down Goliath. But he’ll have his work cut out. Bill Belichick specializes in exposing a team’s weakness, so expect the Patriots to crowd the line of scrimmage and force Bortles to beat them through the air. It’ll take a valiant effort from both the defensive side and the quarterback in order to get the job done vs. New England.

But most envisioned Matt Ryan outperforming Foles; didn’t happen. A majority of people felt Brees would be enough to get the Saints over the hump vs. Minnesota; also didn’t happen. And of course Big Ben wouldn’t fall to the Jaguars again, right? Well, he did … and Bortles was the one moving on to the next round.

This year’s playoffs is more about the quality of the team itself, not just who’s under center. As the old saying goes, defense wins championships — not just elite quarterback play.

The moral to this story: Never rule out the underdog.

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